Disney will dump 'cash cow' ESPN and ABC in late 2023, Wells Fargo predicts

Bank analysts say changing trends will lead to cutting ties with networks

Walt Disney’s Bob Iger reprised his role as the company’s CEO in late November 'to make big changes' including parting ways with ESPN and ABC, Wells Fargo analysts predicted in a company note Tuesday.

According to bank analysts, Iger will shift the mass media and entertainment company’s focus to content and cost rationalization while spinning off broadcast network ABC and cable sports channel ESPN.

Spinning off the two networks is the best path forward and a probable late 2023 event, leaving the Walt Disney Company an attractive pure play intellectual property company, the bank predicted.

ESPN College Game Day

From left: Desmond Howard, Rece Davis, Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit on the set of "College GameDay Built by the Home Depot" on Sept. 11, 2021. (Allen Kee / ESPN Images)

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While ESPN has been the cash cow of the pair, linear and sports trends are diverging from the core IP. In addition, the sports network is not owned IP or global like Disney, so "we think severing the company is increasingly logical," the analysts stated. ESPN is owned 80% by Disney and 20% by Hearst Corporation.

The analysts also stated they think ESPN and ABC are integrally linked, and are moving away from their streaming contemporaries. They added that owned IP monetizes differently versus licensed IP in sports and will lead to the eventual spinoff of ESPN and ABC. 

Disney+ logo

Attendees are reflected in Disney+ logo during the Walt Disney D23 Expo in Anaheim, California, on Sept. 9, 2022. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images / Getty Images)

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A spinoff of ESPN by Disney has been long discussed by investors, the Wells Fargo note stated, while rationale for considering the spin is not financial engineering but portfolio improvement.

In September, activist investor Dan Loeb called for a spinoff of ESPN but later backed off, after understanding the network's ability to generate ad and subscriber revenues.

Then-CEO Bob Chapek said the company has a plan to restore ESPN to its "growth trajectory."

ESPN+ grew 42% for the year ending Oct 1. to 24.3 million subscribers. Disney+ was up 42% to 164.2 million subscribers.

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The Disney Channel and ESPN both had 74 million linear subscribers.

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